(Above: As Henry Lawson didn't, but might have, said: "And my members they all taunt me, As my words come back to haunt me".....
On 4 March 2015 most unions participated in rallies across the country as part of a campaign against the Abbott government’s attacks on living standards of the majority of people living in Australia on behalf of big business.
Speakers at the rallies highlighted the attack on shift and weekend rates of pay by big business and the government. Workers at the rallies applauded speakers who called on all union members to stand together and defend shift and weekend rates of pay.
The mood of workers was one of optimism that the latest attacks would be defeated in a long campaign. Big business and the Abbott government were on the defensive. Abbott and his offsider Abetz had to come out and say that there were no plans to reduce “penalty rates” by them. It was all up to the Fair Work Commission. They could not at that stage see a weakness in the workers’ movement.
Fast forward to Tuesday 24 March and the front page of the Murdoch owned Australian newspaper where it is revealed that the SA Branch of the SDA, the shop assistants’ union, had done a deal with Business SA to eliminate shift rates Monday to Friday in the evening shifts, extend base week day rates to Saturday work and slash Sunday rates from double time to time and one half. The ‘reward’ for shop assistants? A measly 3% per annum pay increase and the ‘choice’ of not working weekends if that suited them! In other words, if a shop assistant has been relying on weekend pay levels to feed their families or pay off a HECS fee, they would have the ‘choice’ of working for much less pay or not work at all!
The ‘leader’ of the SDA said that the new deal would only eventuate if workers agreed to it through an enterprise agreement and that it would only apply to ‘small business’. Why not big businesses like Coles and Woolworths? Because the SDA has already agreed through enterprise agreements to cuts to shift and weekend rates that it now champions for the rest of the retail sector.
The timing of the announcement by the SDA about this despicable deal with Business SA could not have come at a worse time for the workers’ movement as a whole.
It comes just as momentum builds for a sustained campaign to preserve and defend the very elements of workers’ pay that the SDA and Business SA now intend to destroy.
SDA Leaders – Agents Of Big Business Yet Again
The servility of the SDA leaders to big business has a long history extending back at least to the 1950s when the SDA aligned itself with the reactionary, anti-communist National Civic Council and Democratic Labor Party, ideologically and politically led by Bob Santamaria. Tony Abbott as a young Liberal Party activist was mentored by Santamaria.
The SDA colluded with retail employers in the 1990s when Saturday morning rates of pay were reduced from time and one half to time and one quarter and employers were given the green light to roster workers’ ordinary hours over six days of the week Monday to Saturday. It has been downhill from there. The big retailers ‘reward’ the SDA by ensuring union membership remains high through the check off system in employment packs and inductions. Activism on the job in retail is not encouraged. Unionism in retail is very much a fee for service, the service being a job on low pay with a few consumer discounts thrown in if you are a member. When was the last time you heard of a strike in the retail industry over a collective agreement controlled by the SDA leaders and a big retailer?
We will never know if any subtle threats were made to the SDA leaders by big business if they did not give ground on shift rates or weekend rates. Nor will we ever know what promises – like encouragement of union membership – were promised.
What Collective Experience For Young Workers?
However the real tragedy of this behaviour by the SDA leaders is deeper than the actual reduction in pay and transfer of wealth from wages to capital.
Retail and hospitality industries are for hundreds of thousands of young workers their first introduction to the world of work under capitalism. In retail they see a barrage of media attacks that they are paid too much and driving businesses to ruin. Then they read in the SDA magazine how lucky they are that SDA representatives have just negotiated away another part of their pay and conditions. Is it any wonder that when these young workers move on to their preferred industry for a job that they are reluctant to join a union?
What did they experience about unionism while working in retail? Did they have the opportunity to engage in collective action to win something and share the win with co-workers?
Not likely. This is the real tragedy of deals done with the retail industry by the SDA leaders.